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NSW Commercial Fishing Industry: background to the 2012 review

NSW Commercial Fishing Industry: background to the 2012 review

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No 2/2013 by John Wilkinson

In the lead up to the March 2011 State election, the NSW Liberals and Nationals Fisheries Policy Statement, "Securing Sustainable, Viable and H​ealthy Fisheries​", stated that their policy was "to ensure we have a strong and viable commercial fishing industry". Following on from this commitment, in March 2012 a review team, commissioned by the Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, issued a major report: Independent Review of NSW Commercial Fisheries Policy, Management and Administration. This Briefing Paper seeks to set out the background to the 2012 independent review and its key findings. The review itself focuses on commercial, not recreational fishing. The same applies in respect to the present paper.

Major commercial fishing activities: The commercial fishing activities of NSW can be divided into the following fisheries, defined by a mix of the type of fish caught and the capture methods employed. [2.1]

Types of fish caught and value: In 2009-10 a total of 13,422 tonnes of fish of "wild" (or non-aquaculture fish) were caught in NSW, with a value of $80.5 million. [2.1]

Note on aquaculture: Aquaculture lies outside the scope of this paper, the focus of which is on that part of the commercial fishing industry considered in the 2012 Independent Review. It is enough to say that oyster production is the oldest and most individually valuable NSW fishery. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the value of production was $43 million. [2.1]

Imported seafood: As noted, in a Media Release from 14 November 2012 the Minister for Primary Industries said that 85% of seafood sold in NSW is imported. In 2008-09, imports formed 71.6% of fish produce consumed in Australia. In 2009-10 Australia imported around $1.5 billion of fish products. [2.2]

1994 Fisheries Management Act: What was envisaged under the Act was a consolidation of the industry. To achieve this, the 1994 Act sought to establish "commercial share management fisheries", a process that would involve deciding who should be eligible to take fish in that fishery, and then issuing "shares" in the fishery to those who are eligible. These "shares" could be "traded and borrowed against". As the Minister explained: "This will allow fishermen to enter and leave the industry freely and with dignity". [3]

Post-1994 reforms: The 1994 reform package was introduced by degrees. [4]


Abalone and Lobster Fisheries Share Managed


OT/EG/OTL/OH/EPT Fisheries declared Restricted


OT/EG/OTL/OH/EPT Fisheries declared Category 2 Share Managed Fisheries


OT/EG/OTL/OH/EPT Fisheries declared Category 1
The reform strategy included buy-outs and cost recovery mechanisms.

Key features of the industry: : Since the 1980s the number of commercial licences in the State has fallen by over 2,000, to a figure of 1,100 in 2011.

Many fishing businesses with shares in a fishery report a catch of less than 5% of the total catch in the fishery. In at least 4, out of the 5 fisheries, over 60% of the fishers contribute less than 5% of the total catch. Share management, at this stage, does not appear to have produced the consolidation that was planned. [5]

Stevens report 2007: Commissioned by the Iemma government, in October 2007 Richard Stevens (former Director of the federal government's Fisheries Research and Development Corporation) published his Report on Structural Adjustment in Commercial Fisheries in NSW. The report examined a range of options for structural adjustment, including cancelling latent entitlements, issuing a separate 'active' share and substantially increasing minimum shareholding levels. However, the study concluded that the most feasible and cost effective option for achieving the objectives of structural adjustment should incorporate a three step approach, building on the adjustment model previously endorsed by the Seafood Industry Advisory Council. [6]

2012 Independent Review Panel: Successive ALP State governments sought to reform the commercial fishing industry in various ways, including by enticing small-scale fishers out of the industry (through buy-outs) or hastening their exit (through increased cost recovery charges). However, by the time the O'Farrell government took office a substantial number of small-scale operators remained; these were often only active when fish were abundant and possessed the same number of shares as more viable fishers who operated all year round. Conversely the access of more viable fishers to the resource was diminished when small-scale fishers intermittently appeared on the scene.

Providing viable fishers with security appeared to mean, in management terms, that shares should equate to the degree of access to a fishery. As a means to progress this, the O'Farrell government provided Richard Stevens a second opportunity to examine NSW commercial fishing. [7.1]

Stevens and his colleagues divided their report around three main areas of concern, presented in terms of problem and remedy: structural adjustment; governance; and consultation. In November 2012 the O'Farrell government released its response to the review's recommendations, substantially endorsing the review team's advice. As noted, the Minister for Primary Industries (Katrina Hodgkinson) declared in a media release that:

      A lack of investment, ageing commercial fishing fleets, too many fishers through poorly allocated fishing rights and excessive red tape have stifled the industry. . .With 85 per cent of seafood sold in NSW being imported, these new changes are needed to ensure that there is a continued availability of fresh, local seafood. [7.2]
Stakeholder responses: There has been a mixed reaction to the 2012 independent review from the NSW commercial fishing industry. [8.1] On the other hand, responses from conservation groups have been supportive. [8.2]